“Surely we can avert this doom now, since you have seen it far ahead. How many children just a winter old can there be in Orkney,” Arthur muses, “bare and barren as it is? We could be rid them and sweep this Mordred into the sea with all the rest.”
Arthur knows as the last words slip out that they are wrong; that he has thought with the cold mind of a king and not the heart of the true knight.
Merlin looks at him with grey eyes full of resignation, with sadness in the droop of his wrinkled face, as much as can be seen over the white beard. It is only the two of them in the council chamber, even Gwen and Kay sent away at Merlin’s word, so there is no one else to the see that ancient face so fallen, almost in tears, as it looks down on Arthur like a graven image of Almighty God despairing of his own creation.
Once they were alone, Merlin had told him secrets of the past and of what would come: how Arthur was conceived by a trick of sorcery that disguised his father, how already Gwenwhyfar and Lancelot’s love had sown the seeds of the Round Table’s end, of Merlin’s own coming despair and sleep beneath the hill, and finally a vision: Arthur’s death in battle and the wreck of Camelot all at the hand of Mordred, his bastard, sired unknown with Morgause of Orkney before he knew his own true parentage and their blood relation. Merlin had been vivid, speaking of fire in the hall and towers fallen, of blood flowing so free that the earth of Camlaan turned to mud, and brother meeting brother with such furious onset that the sound of blade beating upon blade drowned out the screams of dying horses.
What were a few half-starved island babes to undo such a doom?
It was easy to count lives and blood like coin in Camelot, where legends hung like cobwebs and death was chancy and uncertain if a man’s end came without foretelling. He should have remembered that it was the lives of his knights that were his to spend, not those of babes in barren isles. He should have recoiled at the barest thought of harming just one innocent.
At last, and slowly, Merlin answers him.
“I cannot say if the course you imagine would prevent all I have seen, or any part of it.”
Still Merlin is bent and set almost like stone in grieving judgement, and Arthur feels the weight of it. He was meant to be better than this, once. Merlin lifted him from obscurity and tutored him to be a good man, to be a king honorable and just and chivalrous beyond all others, so that this land of Britain might be lifted up and defended. That has been the purpose of all his glory and his victories, and Merlin has been always at his side, his wisest councilor and most faithful support. But how can he do all he should with virtue if all is doomed to fall and fade for his father’s sin that Merlin aided; if his bastard and his half-sisters that he never knew as such will split his kingdom no matter how he tries to stop them?
“Is there some other way to deliver Camelot from this doom?”
This doom that sets him against the son he should not have, whose destined treachery makes mockery of all Arthur’s prayers for a successor.
“None that I can see here, Lord. Here I see only what I have said.”
Of course, Arthur knows that by now; he should have remembered himself before he asked. Merlin, the king’s advisor, cannot prophecy against himself. What he has seen is fixed. He does not say how to change the doom foretold unless his vision was of that escape. But Camelot is hung with more tales than only Merlin’s prophecy, and all dooms can be dared and defeated by true knights who do not falter. Arthur must be better than the words that have made Merlin look at him like this. He must find some escape, from his own curdling to cruelty on the storied throne and from the doom that will end all he might have been and tumble his legacy to broken stones and half-remembered stories.
Merlin has ever been the granter of quests, and the web of destiny that hems them in will bend for this.
Arthur rises and goes out from the council chamber into the audience hall, and Merlin follows. There are many knights and courtiers and petitioners there, and Kay sits on the first step below the throne to give justice, as Arthur’s steward should. He would have been the first to second atrocity, if he had been in the council chamber. For all his justice, Kay has the sentimentality of a hunting bird. All are silent and look when Arthur enters, and before they can bow or offer him the honor that would make Merlin’s disappointed look cut ten times worse, Arthur goes on one knee before him and asks for the gift only Merlin the wizard can give.
“Merlin, wisest of councilors, I seek the foresight to deliver my life and crown from foretold doom. Where must I seek, and what deeds must I dare, to learn how I may be delivered?”
There is a feeling of rightness, and a lifting spark of purpose that prickles in his limbs as if he is a greyhound straining on the leash. He kneels before Merlin in the great court of Camelot. The figured wood and carven stone are stained by the sun through mosaic windows. Knights of the table stand round him, brows burnished by wisdom and flushed with the excitement that a great adventure brings, even if they will not set out themselves.
“Ride you to the deepest wood in all of Britain, and seek the eldest oak, that was ancient of days ere the eagle of Gwernabwy first roosted. Ask of the one you meet there the foretelling you must find.”
There are gasps and confusions from those who listen as Arthur feels the doom fall on him. Whatever might have been before he asked and Merlin answered, only this course can now deliver him. Good. Knowing what Merlin has told him, he could not trust any other advisor. He would see the seeds of the bloody betrayal hiding in their eyes.
That solemn moment passes. The bustle of arming for an expedition takes him up, and his pages come to armor him in shining mail, to belt on Caliburn in its scabbard that is figured with dragons and set his spear and crowned helm on his white horse.
He refuses all companions. Who could he tell the shameful thought he must redeem by this quest, that would not abandon him for such a thought or tell him he should sin and repent later from a throne secured? And he will not spend the whole journey pretending he fears the blood of Camlaan more than the shame of how he first thought to escape it.
It is never far from Camelot to the Forest Perilous, and that forest is all forests. Arthur chooses the darkest paths, where trees grow thick and rise high at every parting of the ways, and scorns the clearings where pavilions with strange devices blazoned on them stand to tempt young knights in search of glory.
Black-armored knights and beasts with poison tongues draw back from the sight of his crowned head and the blade that hangs at his side. Kidnappers set fair maids free and give them horses to ride home again instead of daring his displeasure. And when he passes deeper into the deepest wood and the hazards do not kneel to let him pass, it is no matter. His striking spear and his bright sword defeat all armor, be it steel or dragon’s hide, and while he wears the figured sheath, no wound can lay him low.
For nine days he rides, forgetting the weight of crown and vigilance for treacheries foretold, and he comes to the greatest oak in the deepest wood of all Britain under a noon purple as twilight beneath endless companies of leaves. Its trunk is broad around as the greatest hall in Camelot, and its crown cannot be seen save as a shadow like cloud beyond the canopy of lesser trees that crowd beneath. The bark is knobbed and gnarled, spotted with moss and graven with lines that might be the imprint of a giant’s pen.
And while he marvels so, a man steps from the shadows or from some hidden door concealed in the tree’s pitted hide. It is Merlin, wild and ancient as he never is at Camelot, hung with charms and feathers in his tangled hair that pools around his feet like a second robe, leaning bent upon a twisted branch grown round with living ivy and its berries black as coal.
“What is this tree?” Arthur asks.
“Long ago when I was already very wise and had learned to hide my life in an egg in a hen in an iron box, I put my foretelling wisdom into an acorn, and for more lifetimes than you can imagine it has grown and spread here in the wood, until it is greater than any mortal flesh can hold. In the heartwood I know all that passes, and in the roots I know the beginning of every tale, and in the growing branches and reaching leaves are every future that may be.”
His old friend smiles, but there is a hunger to it and a danger in those hooded eyes. Merlin did not call him here to make him safe.
“Can you tell me here how to deliver Camelot from doom at Mordred’s hand as you foretold?”
“Not in words, but if you trust me, we may search together for a spreading leaf where it survives. You must be strong in will, and work to keep your mind together. It is difficult to remember so many futures.”
He offers, and of course Arthur grasps the warm and wrinkled hand that lifted him from nothing to all the majesty that he put off to ride here, the hand of Merlin who was his friend when all scorned him for a bastard boy, who has never left his side or ceased from guiding him to greater deeds.
Merlin leads him to the tree and pulls his head down to a knothole in the gnarled wood, and Arthur imagines it will open, will be the entrance to some maze of wooden tunnels they can crouch to wander through.
The opening does not expand. Arthur contracts. He is compressed, a grain of sand borne in the channels of the sap that fills and quickens the great oaken body of the wizard. Merlin is all around, as present as a mother to a child in the womb.
It is unsettling, un-manning, to be reduced this way. He has lost his body, his strong arm, his head that aches sometimes from the weight of the crown. He cannot act at all. He is only the sand that feels and the mind that that remembers why he endures this unmaking, and the one who was Merlin’s friend. That bond is all around him, and he is sheltered by it, by Merlin’s power, like a cloak. The confusion of memories of things untrue or yet to come, that split and change with each branch among the channels of flowing sap in the tree that is his old advisor, is held back, and Arthur sees only what he can bear, like dappled light through the weave of cloth.
The sap and time flow up, and Arthur pushes to follow, wills Merlin to guide him up the spreading branches to an end where Camelot stands past his death and his knights do not divide to warring factions. He passes up through many interlacing threads of possibility, braided through and around each other, and barely different possibilities flit past like fluttering pages of a great book. Sometimes wine is sour in his mouth as he learns of Gwen and Lancelot and hammers in the wedge to see his kingdom burn, sometimes he brings Morgause to court and lavishes every advantage on the boy who grows into his pale reflection, sometimes he does the deed he is here to atone for the thought of and sets Morgause and Morgan, all of Orkney, Gore and Cornwall hard against him. No matter what the windings of the track, he sees the fire and the bloody clash of steel at Camlaan crimson on the far horizon and tastes the choking copper scent rising from the bloody field when he draws close.
He tries to turn aside. He must find a different path forward than simply stumbling until the rot undermines his kingdom. He has no mouth to ask Merlin to pull him off this road that runs clear-eyed to ruin, but still, his old friend hears. Woody thews clench and loose and he is pushed into a different sluice, a different branch of reaching might-be Camelots.
The Grail! The cup of Christ that floweth over with redemption. The vision so beautiful that he could almost feel the smooth grain of its wood. Merlin interprets the sign, and Arthur declares the glory of the quest for it to all the court, a fit purpose for Britain’s greatest knights, and fit to keep them from weaning grudges that will grow to feed on that bloody field he must escape. And so they ride over the land, virtue and valor tested and displayed to greater heights than ever it could have been before, but he is still the king who thought of killing a few dozen babes to spare his throne, and he is never worthy of the cup. Camlaan still waits with red patience just past the glory of the Grail’s return, and his best hope is sleeping exile, healed from his wounds in some fairy amber and entombed in Avalon until some final trump wakes him for a last sacrifice. Camelot still burns, and he is a story in the lips of brigand lords who piss on the law and justice that he tried to lay down for a legacy.
He has no fist to clench, no teeth to grind, no throat to shout frustration, but he hopes the venom burns like acid in these woody entrails. Why has Merlin, all-knowing here by his own word, forced him to live this false hope in the dream of green? There is no might-be future here where he has not already failed the promise that Merlin first saw in him, where he can keep his oldest friend alive and free or leave a Britain that defends the weak and raises up the virtuous above the cruelly mighty.
He strains and stretches into every twig and leaf he can reach from this Grail-branch, and feels himself dividing, split and battered by the wind that sings in the great tree’s canopy above the shelter of the lesser wood.
Maybe it would be better to stay divided here and tumble piecemeal with the turning seasons, to end as dry leaves instead of bloodied on the traitors’ field. Maybe without his cruelty and his careless rule, some echo of Camelot can live, when he is gone and one less hated holds the crown.
Is that the best that he can offer Merlin? To turn the quest for redemption into a quiet resignation, a death that he can stomach easier that his son’s blade? Merlin would not have sent him here to die. If that doom was all that could be, Merlin would have spoken so to the court and let Arthur bear it with what grace he could. He has ever given Arthur what will lead him to the greatest glory. Excalibur to win the victory in battle, and he brought Gwen to court before Arthur knew her and counselled him to woo her and win a true companion and the greatest jewel of Britain for his wife. It was only Arthur’s foolish inattention that soured what should have been between them.
He stays a moment, attenuated, split, and weighs the choice. He has almost decided, with the balance of his twig-divided mind, that he will stay and die and give them all a chance at slipping the doom meant for him when Merlin pulls him down.
The sap runs in reverse and drags him, pumping, pressing, and more, because all that is him is squeezed into this little grain that slips through the ebb and flood of Merlin’s green and ancient wisdom. He doesn’t understand. Where are they going now?
He sees again what he never knew when it first passed; loses himself enough to see the past with Merlin’s eyes as much as his: his first triumphs carefully cultivated, the potential of his youth under the wizard’s tutelage, his birth out of deception, his father’s venal lust that Merlin only satisfied because it would mean a boy who might make something out of fractious Britain. If he had eyes still, he would weep, seeing all the failed futures he is fleeing weighed by Merlin with so much more forbearance than he can ever give himself.
Before he can ask the use of going back over choices made so long ago, they go on deeper into history. Dragons contend beneath Vortigern’s keep. Romans depart the isle, then rule it, then conquer. Merlin pulls him deep, under the earth into the blackness of his wisdom’s roots, where worm tunnels are shining stars above the cold black earth.
There is no memory for him to be here. Somewhere close, at the center of this tree that is time as well as Merlin’s mind, he feels the acorn beating like a heart. Merlin is many things here: the tree, the many different men he could have been or might grow into, the power that holds Arthur together and keeps him from dissolving into possibilities, and still his Merlin is only another grain groping through these might-bes beside him.
From the darkness Arthur rises, Merlin dragging him along strange channels alien to all the history he knew before. Again he is Arthur, and a king. A lord of Britain, and of Anwn too. Myrddin is his bard and seer, and the sons of Lyr ride in his company. But he is no courtly king, no image of chivalry. He is terrible and deadly, half a god and nothing of a Christian. He is wild, and when the world is fenced and settled, he fades to houseless woods and whispered tales and Avalon. There is less of him left in the grasping leaves at the height of this channel than there was in the branch where Camelot burned, and in the heartwood, he is already less real than the Saxon kingdoms growing from the east.
He does not fail the Merlin that is with him, but he cannot redeem the failures that sent him to the forest. He must be a good man to do that, not some pagan spirit.
He pushes and Merlin pulls him down again, a tumble to the darkness faster than he can perceive; only the pressure making it a place, keeping him a thing that does not dissolve into stories like the rest.
He gropes for seeds of himself as a man not caught in webs of legend, and Merlin obliges him, but that motion down into the roots is less sure, fitful and hesitant. This channel is narrower, with fewer branches and complication, and it feels thin, as if it is already crumbling with rot or desiccated age. No dragons announce him on this climb, nor prophecies foretell his reign.
Merlin comes first, no wizard here, only a beleaguered general, a Roman after Rome left to attend its own destruction, trying to hold a shrinking patch of ground against Saxons that come in greater companies each season, relentless as the tide.
And here is Arthur for him, his captain and his heir, a warlord of a warrior people, taking up an old man’s war and winning a little breathing space by daring but later falling, outnumbered by all those happy to leave the cold coast of the Jutland for the green fields of Britain. There is no Avalon to catch his end in amber, and he has every chance to be a good man as the time and place would reckon it. But this might-be or already-was reduces Merlin, the wisest of the wise, who saw Arthur’s kingdom and brought it forth with cunning and foresight, whose wisdom is the greatest oak in Britain, to just a tired man, a loser in a war he had no hope to win. They are good men and friends, but they do no deeds and see no marvels made to echo longer than a mortal life. They suffer no fated treachery, but all the petty betrayals of love and war and politics unbound by webs of story dog them still.
For all of it, the balance of this branch is that he would still fail of the quest that drove him here. He could not be the paragon another Merlin raised him up to be, nor reign in honor and justice. His old friend’s wisdom and wizardry would be lost, left in an oak neither of them could know. And, in a war that has nothing of legend’s gilding to it, Arthur will do many deeds as cruel as putting a few innocents to die at sea.
He thought it was the weight of legend trapping them, pushing him to be villain at the end and lose his old friend’s love. He only dared this journey to find enough hope that love and trust between them might preserve their virtues until a graceful end; to keep himself from the cruelty that leads to Camlaan, keep Merlin from the despair that sends him to long sleep. But it was not the legends hung round Camelot that made him the man Merlin would leave; only fear, only the trap of prophecy and his own failure of the test it set.
He knows now how to slip the trap, and how little of this life he can give up and keep the prize he sought here.
He feels Merlin, his Merlin who reduced beside him, in the tree still searching, pulling him into new channels, looking for another coiled branch of might-bes that end better.
He is done with it. He can do better in the skin he first wore to the wood.
Leaving is difficult. It takes a little cruelty to end something so intimate, and more to pull his Merlin out, but he is committed, and he has held Merlin’s hand enough to find the trick of it when they are not men with hands to hold. The way in and back out is no part of the life of this great tree. It is a borehole, and it scrapes him as he struggles out.
The cool, close air under the canopy feels sharp and thin as mountain wind after the wood-veins. Merlin scowls at him; anger races across his face like advancing clouds, pushing on the first flush of confusion. But Arthur has seen how to free them both from the trap of prophecy that tells the end only when it cannot be escaped.
“Why have you dragged us out of my memory?” Merlin demands. “The quest I gave you is not finished. Have you turned craven at the last, or will you choose the useless murder and the death that follows after it?”
“I have not given up the quest, old friend, but will you grant me wings to reach the crown of your wisdom, I will accomplish it.”
There is a pleasure he has seldom known in puzzling the old wizard and seeing such wonder in his face. Merlin grumbles, but for a moment still, he trusts enough to raise Arthur up this final time. The tree that is Merlin grumbles, and its knots and pits are ladder steps. Arthur climbs them swift as he can.
Above the lesser trees, the sun lets down a dappled light of green and gold, and he can feel the air move again.
He only knew it from inside, but it is not difficult to find the branch that stretches from the moment Merlin told him of Mordred and Camlaan nine days before, the branch of choices that stretch forward from his failure then. He knows it by the aching in this heart and the sound like battle shouts as the wind moves its leaves. He stands upon it, braced against the trunk, but there is no place to stand but on the future of his failures.
No foe can stand against Excalibur, not even the eldest of trees, not when a righteous arm should raise the sword and strike for righteous cause.
His first blow splits the branch half-way. Splinters clatter on his golden mail, and the raw wood scent rises to his nose, sharp with memories of lives he has not lived and will not, now. And then he strikes again and falls atop the future he will not accept, down to the forest floor. No wound can lay him low while still he wears the dragon-figured sheath.
Merlin stands over him, face hot with anger like thunderbolts within a distant cloud.
“Fool! I do not know what will come of this. I can see nothing of what will come, nor will again in this life, without long years of growing. I do not even know if this foolishness has saved you from the doom I spoke before or if it comes on still.”
Arthur stands and pulls him into a tight embrace.
“Then we are free at last, dear friend. You are still Merlin, are you not, greatest of wizards and loremasters? And I am the king you raised. Come back to Camelot with me, and we will meet what comes together. You will work to keep me on the throne and I will try to deserve it, and to keep you from sleeping under hills.”
Merlin holds him close with the strength of ancient trees in those gnarled arms and whispers “as you command, my king,” and Arthur lifts him onto the white horse, and they ride, and neither knows what will come when they return to Camelot.